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Editor Says IRS's Direct File Offers 'Glimpse of a World Where Government Tech Benefits Millions'

S.J. Steinhardt
Published Date:
Mar 28, 2024


The IRS’s free Direct File pilot program may not be perfect, “but it’s a glimpse of a world where government tech benefits millions of Americans,” supervisory senior associate editor Saahil Desai wrote in The Atlantic. It's also “an agonizing realization of how far we are from that reality,”

Desai’s first-hand experience with the program, combined with his observations and reporting, demonstrate the pros and cons of what he called “the essence of government tech right now—a work in progress.”

Direct File provides many of the features offered by paid tax preparation software programs as taxpayers progress through preparing their tax returns. But, unlike some of those big-name programs, “Direct File will not push you to an AI chatbot that flubs basic questions,” he wrote. "And most crucial, it’s completely free."

“That Direct File exists at all is shocking,” Desai marveled. “That it’s pretty good is borderline miraculous,” he added, noting the IRS’s aging technology, one of the many deficiencies that Inflation Reduction Act funding aimed to fix. (Fifteen million dollars of the original $80 billion IRS allocation was designated for a study to determine the feasibility of creating such a program).

Desai reported that taxpayer advocates have long sought a free government tax portal, and that many other countries, such as Japan, Germany, and New Zealand, already have their own government-run tax sites. He noted that "the multibillion-dollar tax-prep industry has also "gone to great lengths to stop Americans from filing their taxes for free. After all, why would anyone pay TurboTax upwards of $200 to file if they didn’t have to?"

He also offered the perspective of Intuit, the parent company of TurboTax. “Filing taxes without someone advocating for your highest refund could be a recipe for overpaying the Internal Revenue Service and [state] departments of revenue, organizations with titles that clearly state their focus, generating revenue for the government,” Rick Heineman, an Intuit spokesperson, told him.

Desai compared Direct File to the nascent Facebook being run out of a Harvard dorm room: “Most people can’t use it, and the product is still a work in progress,” he wrote, though he lauded the IRS for rolling out the launch slowly, “[i]n part to avoid the risk of glitches.” The site still has restrictions and is only available in 12 states.

Unlike the disastrous rollout for the Affordable Care Act in 2013, which required 60 contracts involving 33 outside vendors, Direct File was made almost entirely by the government’s own programmers, product managers and designers, Bridget Roberts,, the head of the Direct File team, told Desai.

Unlike those days, “now there is a generation of civic-tech innovators who want to go into government or want to work with the government,” Donald Moynihan, a public-policy professor at Georgetown University, told him. The government created agencies such as the United States Digital Service and 18F, both of which hire tech workers for temporary stints in the public sector. The government may also have benefitted from tech layoffs in 2023; it  launched a tech-jobs board and aimed to hire 22,000 tech workers, Wired reported. Last month, the federal government began hiring  artificial intelligence (AI) talent by boosting salaries and introducing incentives such as student-loan repayment, FedScoop reported.

Unfortunately, Direct File stands out as a model for tech in government that is not widespread, Desai noted. “The more I played around with Direct File, the more frustrated I grew that there isn’t more government technology like it,” he wrote. “Most of the government’s digital services lag behind,” he said, citing state unemployment systems, the Federal Aviation Administration’s 30-year-old computer system that grounded thousands of flights in January 2023, and the U.S. Department of Education’s botched rollout of a new version of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, earlier this year.

“Ultimately, the fundamental reasons the government is bad at tech haven’t changed much,” Desai wrote, citing issues such as its model of collecting a list of everything it wants in a tech product and its hiring processes.

“Programmers created something from scratch instead of revamping an online service built on outdated code … to build the government’s own TurboTax,” he wrote. “But even now, after all this work, the future of Direct File is in doubt. The IRS has not committed to anything beyond this year, and that Americans will clamor for Direct File next spring is not a given.”

And, he noted, “Direct File’s total employees are outnumbered by just the lobbyists working for Intuit,” according to Open Secrets, a research group that tracks money in U.S. politics and its effect on elections and public policy.

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